The Manhattan High football team has made plenty of improvements since its back-to-back losses to Emporia and Topeka Seaman.
This week, the Indians get the chance to prove how far they’ve come.
Manhattan (4-2, 3-0 Centennial) travels to Topeka on Friday for a matchup against the No. 4 Topeka High Trojans (6-0, 3-0) at 7 p.m. at Hummer Sports Park.
The Trojans remain as the only undefeated team left in 6A, beating Emporia last week by two touchdowns. With an 18-6 combined record, District 5 will be one of the tougher in the state, with no automatic wins or easy games left on the schedule.
MHS Joe Schartz knows it will be an uphill battle.
“They don’t have any weaknesses, that I can tell,” Schartz said of the Trojans. “They have the size, the speed, the athleticism. They’re the total package on both sides of the ball. This is by far, on paper and on film, the best Topeka High team — at least what they’re saying — since 1973.”
After finishing 4-5 last season, the Trojans have improved in almost every area this year. While Topeka typically has good skill players, it’s the improvement along both lines that has Schartz concerned.
“They’ve always had some talent at certain positions, but the offensive and defensive lines have improved over the years,” he said. “Specifically, their offensive line, they’re big and they can move. They have that size but they can also get off the ball, so they’re formidable up front on both lines.
“Then you throw in all the talent surrounding them.”
Quarterback Raymond Solis returns to lead the offense, while running backs Eli Weinbrecht and Austin Tillman have been solid on the ground. Solis and Weinbrecht both have more than 500 yards rushing, with Tillman right behind at 456.
Manhattan’s run defense has been a strength all season, so the matchup seems favorable. But Schartz knows the Trojans are especially strong.
“We have some things that we’re better at than others, and we’ve played some good teams, but I don’t know that we’ve played any team that is loaded from top to bottom like this Topeka High team,” he said. “It’s definitely going to be a tall task. I know the kids are excited about the opportunity.”
Adding to the challenge is the improvement of the Topeka High defense, especially in the secondary.
“We need to be able to run the football,” he said. “The game plan would be to establish the run game and try to get that secondary involved stopping the run game. If they’re able to stop the run game with their front seven, it’s going to be a long night.”
Making things tougher is a string of illness circulating through the locker room.
“I don’t know what it is, but there’s a lot of it going around,” Schartz said. “Coaches are wondering who’s going to play where, because depth isn’t our top strength.”
If the Indians hope to win, they need to win the turnover battle. That’s how Topeka High beat Emporia in what was otherwise an even matchup.
“That’s a huge emphasis,” he said. “We have to create (turnovers) and we have to protect the football. They’re going to score points, but we have to make them earn it and not give them short fields and try to win the field position battle with our special teams.
Schartz knows he can’t control the schedule, but playing arguably his team’s toughest game on the first week of district play doesn’t do the Indians any favors.
“There’s benefits and drawbacks to every schedule,” he said. “It is what it is, we can’t control that. We know that we have to perform well these three weeks in order to go to the playoffs. We’ve used these first six weeks to try and prepare ourselves to do that.
“Now it’s time to go play football.”